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Has the Denim Industry Kept its Promises to Last Year’s Racial Reckoning?

It’s been over a year since the murder of George Floyd, a moment that sparked one of the largest civil rights outcries in history. The movement elevated conversations about the impact of systemic racism across all industries, including fashion, which has benefitted from Black talent for centuries but had fallen short of promoting equality.

In the days and weeks following Floyd’s death, fashion companies pledged support to help establish a more inclusive future. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement called on brands to be active in the fight against discrimination, and many throughout the denim industry responded with big promises—some in the form of financial contributions to support Black-owned businesses, others in the form of internal reorganization and many in the form of a viral black square circulating through social media to show quiet support.

Today, it can be difficult to differentiate between the companies that were serious about their efforts and the ones that simply went through the motions for fear of being canceled, as one year is a drop in the bucket when considering the systemic oppression that has plagued American society.

What is certain is that the BLM movement, and fashion’s response to it, has had an effect on consumers.

“We’ve seen our customers come to Lyst looking for powerful brands with a clear identity and purpose,” said Bridget Mills-Powell, content director at the global fashion shopping platform.

Over the past year, Lyst data indicated an increase in demand for Black-owned fashion brands including Pyer Moss (+50 percent), Heron Preston (+29 percent), Wales Bonner (+87 percent) and Mowalola (+139 percent). The label that came out overwhelmingly on top was Telfar, a Black-owned brand that has always stood for inclusivity. Demand for the brand’s signature faux-leather shopping bag spiked 270 percent in Q3 2020 and became one of the world’s 10 most-wanted products, according to the shopping platform.

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Along with demand, Black-owned brands saw a spike in Instagram followers over the past year. Product intelligence company Trendalytics reported that Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty, Telfar and Fear of God experienced the most growth in Instagram followers.

Big-ticket support

New York-based Christopher John Rogers experienced an influx of 22,503 followers, a 15.5 percent growth rate year-to-date. The designer appeared in 7,500 average weekly searches, up 209 percent compared to last year, Trendalytics reported. Rogers was a key figure in the beginning of 2021 when he dressed Vice President Kamala Harris in a purple dress and coat on the history-making Inauguration Day.

The designer recently unveiled a dress collaboration with Target as well. The big-box retailer announced in April it will invest $2 billion in Black-owned businesses over the next five years. As part of this effort, it will add products from more than 500 Black-owned vendors.

To further help entrepreneurs, Target also introduced Forward Founders, a virtual, eight-week program that will help Black entrepreneurs early in their startup journey navigate ideation, product development and scaling for mass retail. However, the move faced backlash from the 15 Percent Pledge, an initiative that calls for multi-brand retailers and corporations to shift 15 percent—which is the size of the Black population within the U.S.—of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses.

The organization pointed out that, not only did Target mirror its branding, but the retailer also failed to disclose crucial information that would help measure its efforts and hold it accountable. The organization also highlighted that the $2 billion investment represents less than 1 percent of Target’s 2020 revenue, but added in an Instagram post that “any commitment to invest in Black people is a step in the right direction.”

Another major retailer, Nordstrom, launched Black Founders, a pop-up shop at its New York City flagship featuring products from eight Black-owned companies from across the fashion, accessories and beauty categories. Sustainable denim brand Oak & Acorn—Only for the Rebelles, founded by Miko Underwood, was included in the initiative.

Rivet checks in with denim brands' diversity and inclusion pledges following the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.
Miko Underwood, Oak & Acorn—Only for the Rebelles Courtesy

Underwood said the label became the No. 1 selling brand at Nordstrom’s location at the Atlanta Phipps Plaza, thanks in part to its dedicated retail team. “Sales associates and stylists championed Oak & Acorn, which immediately translated into organic ambassadorship via store socials, strategic visual merchandising, styling boards and direct customer transactions,” she said.

Change from within

But to determine if a company is actually committed to making change, Solomon Russell, owner of vintage store Lefthand Twill, said it’s key to look internally.

“We know the importance of being transparent in this industry. We rely hard on information about how clothes are made, down to where the cotton is coming from,” he said. “We need to be just as transparent about how diverse a company might be on a corporate level. Real change starts from within, whether you’re a singular person or a brand.”

Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&Co.) initially responded to the height of the movement with a $100,000 grant to Live Free, which organizes local communities to curb gun violence and promote racial and economic justice, as well as a $100,000 grant to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for work toward criminal justice reform.

The heritage brand, however, published demographic representation data in a diversity and inclusion report last June that found the majority of its management positions were held by men, and an overwhelming majority were filled by individuals who identify as white. LS&Co.’s leadership team is 73 percent white, 16 percent Asian and 6 percent Latinx. Black/African-American employees represent just 2 percent of the leadership workforce.

To make progress within, the company committed to publishing annual updates on employee demographics and diversity statistics as well as wage equity audits every other year and establish a candidate pool of at least 50 percent minorities. In November, the company appointed Elizabeth A. Morrison to chief diversity, inclusion and belonging officer.

PVH Corp.-owned Tommy Hilfiger is also following through on its promises, and last summer launched the People’s Place Program, a plan to help increase opportunities for underrepresented communities within the global fashion industry. The program’s first partnerships included the Fashion and Race Database (FRD), an online platform committed to challenging misrepresentation within the fashion system, and Harlem Fashion Row (HFR), a New York-based agency focused on the advancement of people of color in the fashion industry.

Since then, the brand has made internal strides, and launched mandatory unconscious bias trainings for all associates globally, with the goal of having all associates trained by the end of 2022. It also offers an internal program to support diversity and inclusion efforts and partnered with the CFDA to co-author the State of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Fashion report, a research piece that suggests next steps for the U.S. fashion industry to be more representative and equitable in its workforce, talent pipeline and consumer base.

Mentorship programs

Another firm working closely with Black talent, technology company Resonance last year unveiled its beResonant program, a four-month initiative that provided 11 Black creators with financial, operational, educational and marketing support including $50,000 in cash, products, and services, to operate their sustainable fashion businesses “without having to worry about the crippling effects of inventory.” By using Resonance’s platform create.ONE, designers were able to tap into a made-to-order model that allowed them to get to market in the span of eight weeks.

“It is our responsibility to address fashion’s failure to include and support Black creators,” said Franklin Aririguzoh, beResonant’s general manager. “You can’t reimagine fashion without reimagining who is making fashion. We are not looking for a reactionary quick fix; we are looking to do our part to level the playing field.”

The company is continuing its progress with the beResonant Store, in which it digitally showcases the 11 brands in an effort to better drive traffic and exposure. While it’s always welcoming new Black-owned brands to the platform, it plans on opening applications for a second beResonant class in Q3 of this year that will once again support Black talent creators.

Trade show organizers are also fulfilling their promises to do better in terms of diversity and inclusion. Last year, Informa Fashion Markets, the organizer of Project and Coterie, and wholesale e-commerce platform NuOrder partnered to launch the Informa Markets Fashion for Change (IMFC) incubator program, an initiative that supports emerging designers within the Black fashion community and provides 10 brands with opportunities for representation and mentorship.

The program selected designers to receive two full seasons of complimentary access to Informa Markets Fashion digital events, as well as a digital showroom page on the NuOrder platform and access to its digital wholesale market tools, along with one-on-one mentorship from a member of IMFC’s advisory board throughout the duration of the event. Further, through the IMFC Incubator Grant Program, four of the 10 incubator program designers were selected to receive $10,000 each in grant funding.

According to Don Pietranczyk, vice president of education and experiences at Informa Markets Fashion and IMFC advisory board member, these efforts are ongoing and will be continued for years to come.

“The IMFC initiative will be woven throughout all of our platforms where we connect and engage with our fashion community, be it live or digital,” he said. “We are also launching an IMFC Shopping Guide which highlights must-see brands within categories such as Minority-owned, LBGTQ+-owned, and women-owned to name a few.”

While equal representation in fashion still has a long way to go, the progress it was able to achieve in just one year’s time has many hopeful for the long-term. The focus now, according to Russell, is staying the course.

“‘Ally fatigue,’ in which non-Black and Brown people feel the weight of supporting this uphill battle against discrimination and racism, also extends to brands,” he said. “These social issues aren’t going away, so the key here is continuous support. It’s a marathon; not a sprint.”

Supporting the youth

Beyond fashion, companies are stepping up to support Gen Z, a cohort known for actively pursuing positive change and equality.

AEO Inc., the parent company to teen denim specialty brand American Eagle, organized a scholarship fund that it recently awarded to 15 individuals from underrepresented communities who are actively driving anti-racism, equality and social justice initiatives. The AEO Real Change Scholarship for Social Justice recipients each receive a $10,000 scholarship for the 2021/2022 academic year and are assigned an AEO Inc. mentor to help them advance their career development and social justice efforts.

In addition to the scholarship, the company made a $500,000 pledge to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund to support their education equity work and scholarships for Black students and matched up to $100,000 in donations made by AEO associates to organizations fighting against racism and for social justice. It also implemented a program with the National Retail Federation to provide retail career education for students attending historically black colleges and universities.

“We have always believed that one of the best investments we can make is in our people,” said Jay Schottenstein, AEO executive chairman of the board and CEO. “The Real Change Scholarship for Social Justice demonstrates AEO’s commitment to help end racism, discrimination and inequality while providing educational support for the next generation of leaders. Together we are making real—and lasting—change to build an even stronger, more diverse workplace that provides opportunities for our associates to continue to develop and grow within our AEO family.”

Rivet checks in with denim brands' diversity and inclusion pledges following the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.
AEO Real Change Scholarship for Social Justice recipients Courtesy

According to Donwan Harrell, founder of ArtMeetsChaos, working with young talent is an especially impactful service to the Black community. Harrell has a long-term vision to launch an incubator for young minorities to learn the ins and outs of the fashion industry and provide them with a platform for creative experimentation.

For Harrell, Floyd’s death was “a clear indication that helping our youth can’t wait.” Though he wasn’t ready to start building his long-awaited mentorship hub, he began mentoring a student through youth art program Art Start, and encourages everyone to get started in a small way.

“Although I am the mentor in this scenario, I am pleased to say that the young man I meet with weekly is a source of inspiration, and we both learn and appreciate the relationship,” Harrell said. “Systemic racism is a behemoth, tightly intertwined in the fabric of this country, but if everyone did their part, it would be dismantled in due time. Every step in the right direction counts towards progress and equal justice.”

This article and more appears in the summer issue of Rivet. Click here to download the issue.